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Volume 472: debated on Wednesday 27 February 2008

Before I list my engagements, I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in sending our profound condolences to the family and friends of Corporal Damian Mulvihill of 40 Commando Royal Marines, who was killed in Afghanistan last week. We owe him and others who have lost their lives a deep debt of gratitude.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

Last week the parliamentary Labour party was united in voting enthusiastically to nationalise a bank. On Friday two thirds of the parliamentary Labour party stayed in Westminster to vote for the Temporary and Agency Workers (Equal Treatment) Bill, so ably promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller). After that vote we gathered in New Palace Yard for a team photograph and sang “The Red Flag”. Does my right hon. Friend accept that with more of the same, he will lead us to a famous victory at the next election?

I believe that the whole country believes that we were right to take the decisions that we took on Northern Rock. I also believe that the whole of the European Union, all 27 countries, want to see an agreement on agency workers. We are working throughout Europe to get such an agreement. I think that my hon. Friend will agree that since 1997 we have introduced the first legal national minimum wage, which has benefited millions of workers in this country. The unfortunate thing is that it was opposed by the Conservative party.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Corporal Damian Mulvihill. He died serving our country, and we should honour his memory.

One of the burning issues this week is this place. Is it good value for money? Are we sufficiently transparent? Do we debate the issues that people care about? Do we do it in a way that switches them on, rather than turns them off? I wanted to ask the Prime Minister some questions about that. Let me start with pay. I have long believed that Members of Parliament should not vote for their own pay. I know that the Prime Minister has instituted a review. Will he put it beyond doubt today and give us a guarantee that MPs will not vote for their pay again?

I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that the House has already agreed that MPs should not vote on their pay in future. Perhaps he should read the decisions that have been made by the House. On a general point, I agree with him. The message should go out today clearly that decisions in this country should be made in the Chamber of this House and not on the roof of this House. That is a very important message that should be sent out to those people who are protesting. As for pay, I hope we will reach an agreement in the summer.

I am glad of that guarantee that the Prime Minister has given. It is a real step forward. Allied to—[Interruption.]

Allied to the issue of pay is the issue of pensions. Many of our constituents look at our pension arrangements and, having seen that their final salary schemes have been cancelled—[Interruption.] I think people at home watching this want to know the answer to these questions. Is not the least that we should do to reassure people to close the parliamentary pension scheme to new members and to start again in the new Parliament?

On the first question, I remind the right hon. Gentleman, so that he is absolutely clear, that the House has voted for the decision about MPs’ pay to be taken out of the hands of MPs. It was a unanimous vote of the House of Commons. He has already supported that, as have we. On pensions, he can table that proposal as part of the discussions. It is one thing that can be looked at, but that must also be a decision of the House.

Of course, eventually, these are matters for this House, but it is right for party leaders to say where they stand and give a lead.

Allied to the questions of pay and pensions are the issues of allowances and expenses. Irrespective of what the information tribunal agrees for the past, does the Prime Minister agree with me that for the future, the very least we should do is have openness and transparency and the publication of the details and breakdown of allowances and expenses for all Members of Parliament?

If the right hon. Gentleman had done his research, he would know that I have already written to the Speaker saying that that is exactly what I want to see. I wrote to the Speaker immediately after the case that was raised about one particular Member, and said that there had to be transparency on allowances. The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that that is my position, and that will continue to be my position.

I welcome this clarity. I read the Prime Minister’s letter very carefully, and I have to say that I did not think that there was that level of clarity at all.

Another issue, which probably does more to undermine people’s faith in politics—[Hon. Members: “It’s you!”] Why don’t you just wait for the question? Then you can shout. [Interruption.]

Order. The right hon. Gentleman is right; hon. Members should wait for the question and listen to it. It is not the place of hon. Members to barrack anyone in this Chamber.

One of the things that do undermine politics is the repetitive shouting of Labour Members.

One of the things that most undermine faith and trust in politics is the fact that we make promises and then do not keep them. Today hundreds of people are marching on Parliament asking for the referendum that they were promised on the European constitution—not just in our manifesto, but in everybody’s manifesto. I know that the Prime Minister is not going to change his mind, but will he at least accept that it cannot be right to ask his own Members of Parliament, many of whom really feel a conscientious belief that they signed up to a manifesto, to vote against their consciences? Can that be right?

First of all, on the question of allowances, let us be absolutely clear about what happened. We voted as a House to refer this to a Committee of the House to look at these very matters. The right hon. Gentleman agreed that we should do so. I have sent in my views to the Speaker about what should be done; perhaps others can add their views too, to the Committee. But the right hon. Gentleman should remember that he agreed that a Committee should look at these matters, and that the judgment should not be pre-empted by decisions that he wants to make.

As far as the European referendum is concerned, the right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that in Brussels last summer the decision was made that the constitutional concept be abandoned. In other words, this is an amending treaty and not a constitutional treaty. We have said that there is no necessity now to have a referendum. That will be voted on in the House in the next few days. The question that he will have to answer is: when the House, if it does, votes against there being a referendum, is he going to insist on a referendum after ratification? Is he going to insist on renegotiating the treaty? Is that going to be the Conservative party position for the future?

If the Prime Minister is so confident of his position, given that all of his Members of Parliament agreed the manifesto, he should give them a free vote.

I want to put to the Prime Minister one other point that could help to restore some invigoration in our politics. It is this: there is no doubt that one of the reasons why the American elections have caught people’s imagination is that night after night the contenders debate in live television debates. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that the time for such live television debates at general election times has now come? Will he agree to hold television debates with the leaders of the main political parties so that people can see us discuss the issues, the policies and the challenges for the future of this country?

In America they do not have Question Time every week, where we can examine what the different policies of the different parties are.

I come back to the question of the European referendum. The right hon. Gentleman says that he is demanding a European referendum; there are members of his party who say that now that the constitutional concept has been abandoned, there should be no referendum. He has not got unity in his party on this issue. He should face up to the vital fact that there is a disagreement about this issue, but the constitutional concept in Europe has now been abandoned.

I have to say to the Prime Minister that if he really thinks that these exchanges once a week are a substitute for a proper television debate, then he is even more out of touch than I thought. We have to be honest with ourselves: not many people watch these exchanges, and not all those who do are hugely impressed with them. There are parliamentary systems that do have television debates; we have seen them in Italy, Australia and Poland. The Prime Minister has no objection in principle: when he was shadow Chancellor, he did a television debate against the then Chancellor of the Exchequer—so I have to ask him: what on earth is he frightened of?

This is the man who makes speeches about the primacy of Parliament. This is the man who says that we should keep our promises, and also said that there would be an end to Punch and Judy politics—and what did he then do?

On the European referendum—[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman raised the issue of the European referendum, so perhaps he will now answer the question: if we ratify the treaty, is he still committed to a referendum and still committed to renegotiating the treaty? The country will need to know the answers from him as well.

Since my grandmother and many other members of my family were murdered by the Nazis in a holocaust that slaughtered 6 million Jews, together with Gypsies, homosexuals and vast numbers of other innocent people, will my right hon. Friend reaffirm the Government’s support for the Holocaust Educational Trust’s “Lessons from Auschwitz” programme, which takes sixth-formers to see for themselves where and how these atrocities were committed? Will he condemn with scorn those who label as a gimmick an essential project to ensure that one of the vilest ever crimes against humanity will never be forgotten?

I will ensure that the Holocaust Educational Trust can continue its vital work and that thousands of school pupils can go to Auschwitz and see for themselves the horrors that happened and then report back to their schools. I would have hoped that there would be agreement in all parts of the House on this.

May I add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Corporal Damian Mulvihill.

The NHS spends more than £300 million a year on anti-depressant drugs, which we learned yesterday probably do not help many of the people taking them. Is it not time the Prime Minister developed a mental health strategy that helps patients rather than pouring millions of pounds into the pockets of the pharmaceutical industry for drugs that do not even work?

First of all, I say to the right hon. Gentleman: welcome back. I hope that this time he can stay long enough to hear the answers.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we should do more so that people are not dependent on the drugs that he is talking about. That is precisely why the Secretary of State for Health is investing in providing more therapists to help people. We have made a decision to employ 3,600 more, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will support that.

It is good to be here. It is a shame that the Prime Minister seeks to defend clapped-out 19th century procedures in this House, which are preventing the British people from—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”]

Order. [Hon. Members: “More!”] Order. I just say to the right hon. Gentleman that he should be careful where he goes with this. [Interruption.] Order. Now, let the right hon. Gentleman speak. The Speaker has given him some advice; I give hon. Members advice all day. It is all right.

Of course I will be careful, Mr. Speaker. I was talking about procedures, not people—procedures that prevent the British people from having a say in this Chamber, which is what they want.

On the issue of mental health, has the Prime Minister forgotten what his own expert, Lord Layard said? He said that we need an additional 10,000 therapists, not the 3,000 that the Prime Minister is talking about. Why is he taking half measures when we have the scandal of some patients waiting up to three and a half years just to see a therapist?

Lord Layard has said that he supports the policy we are putting forward. That policy will receive the support of £173 million, to invest in the psychological help that people can give. We are looking at piloting some of Lord Layard’s proposals on how we can help people get into work, so we are doing exactly what the right hon. Gentleman is asking us to do.

As for the matter of the European vote, which the right hon. Gentleman also raised, I just remind him that his party put that issue to a vote only a few weeks ago, on 14 November 2007, when it said that

“the Gracious Speech fails to announce proposals for a referendum on the United Kingdom’s continued membership of the European Union.”—[Official Report, 14 November 2007; Vol. 467, c. 781.]

When they put their proposal to the vote, 464 voted against them, and only 68 for them. That is the level of support for their proposal.

The Prime Minister will be aware of the huge disappointment in Blackpool when we were not awarded a super-casino after years of campaigning. Will he therefore agree to meet me, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden), to discuss further the regeneration package announced for Blackpool, and especially to discuss how we can lever in private sector money to match the announcement that the Government have made about their investment?

I applaud what my hon. Friend has done to put the case for Blackpool, and she and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South have argued the case for regeneration. We have looked at the proposals that she and others have put forward. We are in favour of a substantial scheme of regeneration. We cancelled the super-casino, but our view has always been that not only Manchester but Blackpool should have more measures of regeneration allocated to them by Government support. I will be happy to meet her to discuss that.

Q2. According to the Office for National Statistics, 207,000 British people left the UK last year. That is the highest number on record. Just what is it about the Prime Minister’s Government that makes British people want to pack their bags and leave the country? (189117)

I do not think the hon. Gentleman understands that every year about 180 million people are moving around the world. They are moving to study, to work and to find new lives for themselves. It is inevitable that there will be higher mobility in future years. The question for us is one that all parties will want answered. We have to have a system of managed migration for our country, which is precisely what our proposals of last week were determined to achieve.

Q3. for cervical cancer saves thousands of lives every year, but we know we have to do better to increase uptake among young women, particularly those in their late 20s and early 30s. Given that, will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Salford primary care trust, whose initiative to improve those processes brought about a 7 per cent. increase in uptake? In fact, is it not the case that action locally and nationally to improve screening is a lifesaver, not a political gimmick? (189118)

I am sorry that the Opposition last week said that the cervical cancer screening times that we are introducing were a gimmick. What we are doing is introducing vaccination against cervical cancer, available to teenagers. That is a big investment that we are making because it will save lives. I hope that there will be support in all parties for the action that we are taking.

Q4. As someone who has now passed his 60th birthday, I acknowledge the benefits and the resources of concessionary bus passes. However, is the Prime Minister aware that small borough councils that have a high level of tourism, such as Fylde, are already contemplating cutting local services so as to be able to fund fully the burden of concessionary bus fares? Will the Prime Minister look again at the allocation mechanism for those resources, to ensure that resources match the burden on small authorities? (189119)

The right hon. Gentleman may know that we have provided £650 million to local authorities over the next three years to cover the extra cost of national travel. We have done it in that way after a great deal of consultation with local authorities, which asked for the scheme to be developed in the way that it has been. As a result of that consultation, the right hon. Gentleman’s council will receive £275,000 for that national scheme, and I believe that other councils in his area are receiving similar amounts of money. By April, we will be able to say that there will be free off-peak national concessionary travel for every pensioner in the country. That is a substantial advance, and I hope that it will have the support of all people in the country.

Q5. I am sure that the whole House will welcome the conviction last week of Steven Wright for the foul murder of five young women in my constituency and commend the role of the police and the Crown Prosecution Service in their successful prosecution of him. Key to the early detection and successful prosecution was the identification of Wright through the national DNA database. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that a proportionate and effective database of DNA is sustained, not just one that records people convicted for violent and sexual offences? (189122)

I join my hon. Friend in thanking and congratulating the police and those involved in bringing a successful prosecution for the murder of these prostitutes in Ipswich. Our country is proud of the professionalism and dedication that the police and all the prosecuting authorities show. My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the importance of DNA. I can tell the House that the DNA database produced matches that enabled us to prosecute in the case of 452 homicides, 644 rapes, 222 other sex offences and 1,800 other violent crimes, all in the past year. That shows that we are in a position to make the best use of the DNA database to catch people who otherwise may go free. I hope that other parties in the House will reconsider their opposition to the 2003 Act that extended the DNA database, to the benefit of successful prosecutions.

The most recent election in Scotland took place last week in the Highland ward in Perthshire, where the Scottish National party secured 60 per cent. of the vote and Labour came in last at 3 per cent. What particular UK Government policy does the Prime Minister think motivated those 97 hardy souls to vote Labour?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, in the last Scottish elections, even with the success of the SNP, 68 per cent. of the population voted against parties supporting separation. On any opinion polls conducted, support for independence has not risen since last summer, but fallen. That shows the views of the Scottish people: they want to be part of the United Kingdom.

Q6. People in my constituency who suffer because of drug-related crime want the offenders caught and punished, but they also want action to get them off drugs before they wreck their own lives and destroy their communities. What more can the Prime Minister do to ensure that there is effective co-ordination among Departments to tackle the misery that drug addiction causes to the addicts, their families and the people around them? (189123)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has taken a big interest in such matters. Although the numbers of people on drugs are down and the numbers of drug-related crimes are down, we still have a major problem to deal with, in respect of the number of people dependent on drugs in our country. Dealing with it starts with proper education in primary and secondary schools, and with proper systems for treating people who are drug-dependent, and includes programmes for treating people in prison, where we want to move the number of people on drugs who are treated to an additional 1,000 a week.

I also believe that we must do more to help people who are on benefit back into work. It is right, then, to look at the system that we have for paying incapacity benefit, to see whether there is a better way of ensuring that the 300,000 people on incapacity benefit who are drug-dependent can receive the treatment necessary, allowing them to be in a position to get back to work and not be wholly dependent for ever on one benefit. We are going to come forward with proposals to reform the system to ensure that people who are on drugs have the best possibility of getting off drugs, with the best possible treatment.

Q7. Many vulnerable communities are waiting to hear about the future of their post offices. Such challenges often bring out the best in people: if they are given the opportunity, they can organise themselves and their resources to ensure that those facilities stay open. That often includes the local shop. Will the Prime Minister call a moratorium on post office closures so that people can use the full potential of the Sustainable Communities Bill and the powers of devolved Administrations to minimise those losses and protect the quality of life of the people living in those communities? (189124)

If proposals are made to give communities better means of providing postal services, and if they include a financial way forward to do so, we are very happy to look at them. On present proposals for post offices, the hon. Gentleman will know that we have set aside £1.7 billion for the next three years to implement the programme of post offices changes. Under the previous Government, no money was provided when post offices were going under, but we are providing the money to make it possible. About 10 per cent. of the proposals have already been turned down, and if the hon. Gentleman brings forward proper and financially costed proposals, we will look at them.

Q8. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Mr. Demetris Christofias, the newly elected President of the Republic of Cyprus? His election may turn out to be the last opportunity to find a solution to the Cyprus problem. In those circumstances, will my right hon. Friend make it his first priority to find a resolution of the problems of Cyprus and do everything he can to reunite the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities on the island? (189125)

I congratulate the new President-elect on his victory. Cypriots have clearly demonstrated that they want a comprehensive settlement, or progress towards it, in the next few months. I have invited the new President to come to London to talk about these issues, and I believe that there is new hope that such a settlement can be achieved.

Q9. The Leader of the House, the Prime Minister’s own deputy leader, has described Fidel Castro as a “hero of the left”. Given Castro’s persecution of homosexuals, his imprisonment of journalists and his employment of thousands of people on phone-tapping duties, does the Prime Minister agree? (189126)

Q10. The Home Secretary’s determination to make it easier for police officers to confiscate alcohol from teenage binge drinkers will be welcomed by almost all parents in my constituency. Sadly, however, one parent disagrees. He thinks that this idea is a gimmick—and it says so on the Tory party’s website. Does the Prime Minister know who that parent might be? (189127)

I am sorry that the Conservative party chose last Friday to say that something as important as controlling the supply of alcohol and stopping binge drinking in our community is simply a gimmick. It is right to confiscate alcohol from under-18s, it is right to prosecute shops and retail outlets that sell alcohol to under-18s, and it is right to step up the measures that we will be taking in the next few days against binge drinking in our country. I believe that the whole country wants us to take those measures, and that they do not see measures that make a difference as a gimmick. That idea is just playing politics, but we are getting on with the business of governing.

Does the Prime Minister share my concern about the worrying increase in tension in Serbia and, even more worryingly, in parts of the Republika Srpska, following the granting of independence to Kosovo? Does he agree with Carla del Ponte that more effort must be made to send a strong signal to bring General Mladic and Karadzic to justice in The Hague in the very near future?

Bringing these two men to justice is a very important part of reconciliation after what happened in that area of Europe. I would say to the hon. Gentleman also that what has happened in Kosovo is the right way forward. The supervised independence that is happening has happened with peace and stability. I hope, as a result of the NATO force and the European Union civilian force there, that that will continue, and I hope that Serbia, where there are tension and understandable anxieties, will see that it has a European future, and we will support it in that.

Q11. In Fairtrade fortnight, we congratulate those towns and parish councils that have managed to achieve Fairtrade status. They should be supported. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating them? However, in my area, West Lancashire district council, a Tory council, is reluctant to participate and has absolutely rejected the idea, on the basis that it is more expensive or the coffee does not taste correctly. There is no measure of what fair trade means to other people throughout the world, globally— (189128)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Fair trade is important to the poorest countries of the world. The Fairtrade fortnight that is taking place means that there are many local celebrations that we should be supporting. UK shoppers have bought nearly 500 million fair trade products this year. That is up 40 per cent., which shows the great support that there now is for fair trade. Fair trade is not a gimmick. It is an important part of building justice throughout the world.